From the very beginning of Jordan Vogt-Robinson's The Kings of Summer, the relationship between Frank (Nick Offerman), a still-grieving widower, and his only son, Joe (Nick Robinson), is marked by unpleasantness. They don't seem to like one another, and they don't seem to be trying all that hard to work on the situation. When Frank demands Joe's attendance at a family game night with his sister, Heather (Alison Brie), her fiancée, Colin (Eugene Cordero), and Frank's new girlfriend, the teenaged Joe quickly ruins things by picking at his father's emotional scabs and going as far as to call the authorities to report nonexistent abuse. It's a dark, initially interesting dynamic that the filmmakers set as story's central, ubiquitous conflict, but never really explore in any meaningful way, which sets the timbre for this funny but frustratingly half-measured coming-of-age tale.
When Joe decides to build a ramshackle home in the middle of the woods with BFF Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and certifiable weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), the hope is that severing his relationship with his father will also disrupt his father's poisonous influence on him, allowing him to become his own man. In Chris Galletta's saccadic script, Joe's summer of self-discovery is marked by familiar fascinations: posturing masculinity, copious amounts of alcohol, and that pretty girl with the older douchebag boyfriend, here personified by Kelly (Erin Moriarty). On the other hand, the script subverts typical structures, as this is neither a long journey into the party-hopping night or the chronicle of a crummy summer job. The film is more concerned with nature versus nature, but in the end, only superficially so. Ironically adopting his father's misanthropic outlook, Joe is rendered a jealous and bitter recluse when Patrick and Kelly begin dating, but the character is never forced to question his attitude or his sometimes appalling actions, which Frank, at least passively, does.
Vogt-Robinson's aesthetic is marked by off-tempo editing and a tone that vacillates between grim and coy, and though it's occasionally visually evocative, such as when Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio first discover the space for their new home bathed in eerie moonlight, it's also unmistakably over-calculated. The Kings of Summer registers more as a collection of cynically hip comedy sketches detailed with faux-trendy touches, exemplified by the mustache Joe dons about halfway through the film. And if the director's style partially smooths out the episodic nature of the script, the film's unsteady tone still makes the concluding attempts at emotional resolution and resonance feel frivolous, even pandering. The film evades the rote sweet nature of the works of so many John Hughes acolytes, but its chosen austerity is ultimately just as thin and superfluous as hat of any Disney-certified teen comedy.
Like the home Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio build for themselves, The Kings of Summer is sloppy, the product of ambitious amateurs, but this isn't to say that it doesn't have its charms. The film has more than a handful of genuinely funny moments, many of which arise from Arias's deadpan performance and Thomas Middleditch's dumb-cop routine. In fact, the cast, which also includes Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson, and Mary Lynn Rajskub, is entirely game for this sadly tame attempt to capture the madness of suburban arrested development, but Vogt-Robinson too earnestly tries to invoke the base savagery of men left alone in the world. In this, the filmmaker fetishizes a risible strain of macho cynicism and only backhandedly hints at its inherent foolishness, in effect not only condoning, but also praising mean-spirited cowardice as an ultimately righteous way to be.